What are fungi?
Fungi are a part of the eukaryotic organisms class and can range from microorganisms like mould and yeast to more commonly known varieties like mushrooms. In 2017, there were between 2.2 million and 3.8 million different species within the fungi kingdom. Fungi inhabit almost every location on planet earth, yet mostly unnoticeable with the majority of this unique species living beneath the surface.
Why are fungi important?
Fungi are crucial to all life on earth by helping retain healthy soils and decomposing natural organisms like food. Fungi, like mushrooms, are often thought of as an ingredient in a meal or a pest in the yard. However, what if this miraculous organism was the solution to cleaning up toxic rare metals and oil spills, whilst becoming the future of environmentally-conscious concrete, plastic and more? Fungi may have a humorous name, but their current and potential impact to change the world for the better is no joke.
Back in 2014, an architecture firm known as The Living located in New York City built a twelve-meter-high tower made from 100% mycelium (underground network of webs, like the roots of a tree). According to an architect of the firm, construction material built from fungi was very inexpensive and could be grown in a variety of conditions, making this practice financially viable for most and equally as convenient. Today, the industrial concrete sector contributes to 8% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
Additionally, organic materials left after harvesting fields in agriculture are often burned each year, greatly contributing to air pollution in countries like India.
With fungi, there is a much greener approach. A recent experiment placed crop residue seeded with mycelium into a mould and found that within a week, the mycelium had consumed all that was left of the agricultural waste, forming a strong, low-carbon brick with brilliant insulation properties.
A company located in Green Island, New York named Ecovative is currently experimenting with fungi to create plant-based meats like bacon.
The hero behind what makes this possible is called “aerial mycelium” which is grown in vertical farms from agricultural waste and fungi (mycelium). Once completely formed, the aerial mycelium looks like a large marshmallow and can be finely sliced into strips; seasoned and cooked, providing the taste of traditional pig meat.
With the same protein content, high levels of fibre, 100% plant-based, zero processed ingredients and 1/5 the fat content of conventional bacon, this alternative means of making meat would be far more sustainable, ethical, and nutritionally sound.
Fungi certainly have their place in biotechnology with numerous applications. Their uses don’t end here with the capabilities to drastically minimise the impacts of one of the greatest anthropogenic environmental problems we are, and will face for some time.
On the 26th of April, 1986 in Chernobyl, a huge and immediate rush of power during a systems test shattered reactor 4 and produced toxic amounts of radioactive material into the environment. To this day, Chernobyl is uninhabited by humans and will continue this way for thousands more years. However, a fungus commonly known as Cryptococcus neoformans contains genetic properties that can sequester large amounts of radioactive material. The fungus can consume a large quantity of hazardous content and – after completion – can be removed, burned and disposed of safely with much healthier soil in the surrounding environment.
Rare metals & oil removal
Experiments conducted near Russian industrial sites found astonishing results; researchers found that particular fungi were able to collect up to 40 times more copper and nickel than the surrounding soil.
What’s more, fungi also provide a solution to oil spills: an experiment performed in Mexico tested marine fungi to investigate whether this was a potential means of cleaning ocean contamination. They found that the fungi were capable of breaking down one of the main hazardous materials in the oil known as Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). The fungi used specific enzymes to break down the oil and absorb the carbon, allowing the fungi to feed on the toxic substance.
Today, the planet is choking on plastic, with over one million plastic bottles bought every minute alone. Currently, hundreds of thousands of animals die from pollution annually with single-use masks causing even greater headaches for the planet.
The obvious solution to this issue is to simply scrap plastic products entirely. However, with cheap manufacturing costs, limited dedication to plastic reduction and low recycling rates, this is a distant reality.
Students from Yale University found a mushroom species located in the Amazon rainforest called Pestalotiopsis microspore, capable of consuming plastic waste. The fungi can survive off plastic alone and transform one of plastics main ingredients, polyurethane, into organic matter. In Addition, Pestalotiopsis can live in locations with limited oxygen making it a suitable option for growing in landfills across the globe.
As time passes and more people (including governments and companies) catch on to this discovery, mushroom species could be the temporary solution to a shortage of landfill space, and the damaging effects that stem from their operations.
The existence of life on earth:
Whilst fungi have become useful in cleaning environmental issues, we mustn’t forget to acknowledge fungi for the very existence of life on earth.
Fungi are responsible for breaking down, weathering, rocks and turning them into soil. As well as extracting and depositing nutrients from rocks into the soil; allowing the first plants like liverworts to thrive. Scientists believe fungi were key to the commencement of life on earth by building the oxygen-rich world from the creation of plants 400 million to 500 million years ago.
Fungi are the most essential organism on earth; the existence of life, cleaning up toxic pollutants, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Fungi are often associated with an ingredient in a meal or a hazardous monster growing in the yard, though their uses are so much broader than what appears in their fruiting bodies. Fungi provided us with life to begin with; turns out there’s a lot greater history behind risottos and portobello mushroom burgers.